The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

It’s common knowledge that the art of letter writing is in abeyance, if not totally a thing of the past, due to many factors that I won’t go into, but I can think of no more worthwhile collection to read than Flannery O’Connor’s “Habit of Being.”  During her all too brief lifetime (she died at 39 from lupus) O’Connor published two novels — “Wise Blood” (1952) and “The Violent Bear It Away” (1960) — and two story collections — “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (1955) and “Three by Flannery O’Connor” (1964) — all of which secured the high reputation she enjoys to this day. Two posthumous books further embellished it: the story collection “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (1965) and a volume of occasional prose, “Mystery and Manners” (1969). She had not long been one of my favorite writers (she was just beginning to become known), with her spare, perfect prose, her ideational fiction, and the sardonic wit, scathing humor, and self-effacement so evident in everything she wrote, but it wasn’t until her letters were published in 1979 and I eagerly went out and bought them (something I have never done before or since), that I realized the she was not only a writer through and through, but a person well worth knowing. And that is what these letters accomplish for all time- making present the living, breathing Flannery O’Connor.

Entertaining, fascinating, inspirational, a veritable writer’s workshop,  an exercise in faith, a profile in courage, a daybook, a hobnobbing with her fellow literati, or an account of a life lived to its fullest, warts and all- call them what you will- her letters are all these things and so much more. Flannery O’Connor was the most religious (it’s not even close) of  great American writers, not difficult in a sense, as most modern writers proportionally denigrate religion; a devout Catholic, her religion was her habit of being,  especially after her diagnosis of lupus relegated her to a seemingly staid life with her mother in Milledgeville, Georgia. An avowed Catholic and staunch apologist of her church’s doctrines, you would think such a woman, a woman who admittedly kept The Confessions of St. Augustine on her nightstand might be a dogmatic one-trick pony, but throw all the stale cliches the facts of her necessarily proscribed existence might engender away, she was a dynamo who loved her life, her South, her mother, her birds, and, almost on the same plane, her religion and writing, and she gave her all to them, as these letters attest. Her mother had forbidden any biography be written while she was alive, and only one (deemed “severely insipid”) has been written since. Sally Fitzgerald (along with her husband Robert her close friend and patron and the editor of these letters) explains why this may be in her Introduction to same: “I have come to think that the true likeness of Flannery O’Connor will be painted by herself, a self-portrait in words, to be found in her letters . . . There she stands, a phoenix risen from her own words: calm, slow, funny, courteous, both modest and very sure of herself, intense, sharply penetrating, devout but never pietistic, downright, occasionally fierce, and honest in a way that restores honor to the word.”

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